Truths and Realities When it Comes to Grief Counseling

June 25, 2021

By Ken Barringer

In this world, there are truths and realities, and those two things are not necessarily always the same. With this in mind here are a few thoughts about grief counseling. There are a lot of misperceptions about what grief counseling is and how it can be helpful. Common questions from grievers when they first inquire about support can go something like this:

“How do I get over my grief”

“How can I heal myself from grief?”

“How can you help me feel better?”

“How do I move on?”

The first reality is that grief is not a problem to solve which is implied in these questions. People do not come to grief counseling because they have a problem (although those around them might contend they do as these questions often have the voice of someone else). People come to grief counseling because something sad happened. Sadness can be a positive emotion as it’s really about the process of letting go and going forward. Sadness often gets lumped in with depression and while sadness can be part of depression it’s separate. Sadness is letting go, depression is holding on. 

A myth that might keep people away from grief counseling is the idea that grievers don’t need to talk to someone; they have family and friends. Yes, in many instances this is true. However, in other situations family and/or friends might be available in the aftermath but “go back to normal” after a period. Also, while they might be close relationships not everyone can support grievers need to be vulnerable and transparent. Further, family, cultural or religious norms for managing grief might not really work/fit with the griever. 

Another element of grief counseling is focusing on self-care. Which debunks another myth. While the cultural belief may be to heal yourself FROM grief, the contention here is that you heal yourself FOR grieving. We do this by caring for ourselves, thus an emphasis on “what have you done for you?” I prefer the micro to the macro approach of self-care. Micro is best described as “little and often” – a 10-minute walk, eating healthy – things that we can do with great frequency. The Macro (what most people think of as self-care) generally implies time and money – a weekend away, a spa day – which not everyone has. If you think something is helpful for you it probably is. It’s double jeopardy when self-care feels demoralizing (“I suck at self-care, I haven’t been to the gym in a while”) and you’re grieving.

So much of grief counseling is perspective taking on what the loss means in the context of your current and future life. Part of gaining perspective is through storytelling to an unbiased listener. Perhaps the universal myth about grieving was best articulate in episode of the Terrible Thanks for Asking podcast. To paraphrase, “Grief make me feel apart FROM the world” when in reality since no one is immune from loss “Grief should make me feel a part OF the world”. Grief counseling provides normalizing, validating, acknowledging and education.  This aids perspective taking as we welcome our story meaning different things at different stages of life.